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Believing elephants into personhood

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Why do people who don’t believe elephants can fly believe that they can be made into “persons” by human effort?

For decades, researchers were transfixed with the idea of humanizing great apes by raising them among humans and teaching them language. Emerging from the ruins and recriminations of the collapse, philosophy prof Don Ross has a new idea: Let’s start with elephants instead…

The myth of the “talking animal,” far from receding into the ancient mists from which it sprung, never dies, as a recent essay at Aeon by a philosophy professor shows. The myth answers needs that cannot, perhaps, be realized in the real world but cannot die either:

“We know that elephants are more social – and far more intelligent – than cows. But the comparison goes far beyond the question of intelligence and alertness. I believe it’s possible that elephants have all the cognitive and emotional capacities it takes to be persons. I’m not claiming they belong to the species Homo sapiens, obviously: rather, I mean they might have the potential to deserve the label ‘person’ in recognition of their particular status or identity. Along with many philosophers, I think that being a person involves something different to being a living organism with human DNA.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that elephants currently express the full range of personal and creative capacities that humans do. But I suspect all that’s missing are certain informational and institutional structures, along with the motivations to innovate upon them. In humans, we know what those structures look like: they are the books, movies, museums and laws that manifest in the world what otherwise exists only in our heads. It might be that there’s a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven’t been moved to externalise and store it in the environment the way we have.” Don Ross, “The Elephant as a Person” at Aeon

But wait. Why haven’t elephants been so moved? This is like saying dogs don’t wear shoes on salty pavement because they haven’t been moved to make them. In short, it depends on a grammatical equivocation around the origin of the ideas themselves…

There is no evidence that a convergence between human and elephant intellect is happening elsewhere than in the vast, non-spatial, and minimally-chartable world of the human imagination.

Denyse O’Leary, “Elephants who fly—or become “persons”—are magic” at Mind Matters News

Amazing what people start to believe when they quit believing in conventional religions.


See also: Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way… In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened?

Does social ability distinguish human intelligence from that of apes? Not altogether, of course, but it plays a bigger role than we sometimes assume

Crows can be as smart as apes

Scientists clash over why octopuses are smart. New findings show, the brainy seafood breaks all the rules about why some life forms are smart. For many years, we’ve been trying to understand why the octopus is uniquely smart among cephalopods. Research answers some questions only to raise others, as a recent controversy shows.

Is the octopus a “second genesis of intelligence?” Can its strange powers provide insights for robotics or the human mind?

Yes, even lizards can be smart. If you catch them at the right time. But can we give machines what the lizard has by nature?

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2 Replies to “Believing elephants into personhood

  1. 1
    doubter says:

    Certainly, one factor that figures heavily into the “personhood” or otherwise of some advanced non-human animals is how human-like are the emotional experiences of these animals.

    There is a new book by Frans de Waal, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. Some comments about this book in the article From What Kind of Emotions Do Animals Feel? at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_kind_of_emotions_do_animals_feel?utm_source=pocket-newtab :

    …though de Waal views elephants as highly empathic, emotional beings—given how they will rush to comfort a fellow elephant in distress, and how they can recognize themselves in a mirror—he acknowledges that some scientists remain skeptical because we can’t ask elephants (or any animal) about their feelings. “The possibility that animals experience emotions the way we do makes many hard-nosed scientists feel queasy,” de Waal points out, “partly because animals never report any feelings, and partly because the existence of feelings presupposes a level of consciousness that these scientists are unwilling to grant to animals.”

    It’s not just skeptical materialist scientists – it’s also some religious believers in certain holy texts.

    I wonder what these “hard-nosed” scientists and others think is responsible for such behavior. If it doesn’t signify the same sort of emotions and feelings such behavior means with humans, they still have to explain the behavior some other way. If they think animals are behavioristic bundles of instincts and stimulus-response complexes with no entity with feelings inside, then why the specific behaviors that have certain specific meanings to humans? If things like the actions by elephants described by de Waal are just behaviors with nothing going on inside, why those particular behaviors in response to those particular circumstances? These would seem to be unlikely coincidences. I think even evolutionary psychologists have to presume the existence of “feelings” of some sort as the driving forces that animals have evolved to push them toward behavior beneficial to the individual or group. Of course, most evo-psych stories are exercises in creative imagination, but unfortunately some consider them science.

  2. 2
    ET says:

    Amazing what people start to believe when they quit believing in conventional religions.

    Like the conventional religion that has a talking snake/ serpent? The conventional religion that gave birth to snake handling religious ceremonies?

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